The US military will continue its evacuation effort from Kabul airport until the August 31st deadline if needed, but on the last couple of days it will prioritise the removal of US troops and military equipment, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.
Army Maj Gen William Taylor, with the US military’s joint staff, told a news briefing on Wednesday that more that 10,000 people were currently at Kabul airport waiting to be evacuated from Afghanistan.
He said that in the past 24 hours, 90 US military and other international flights had evacuated 19,000 more people, bringing the total evacuation number so far to about 88,000. He said one plane had departed every 39 minutes.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby added that there were currently 5,400 US troops at Kabul airport.
The US and its allies have been evacuating from Afghanistan groups including their citizens, Nato personnel and Afghans at risk since August 14th, the day before the Taliban swept into the capital, Kabul.
Western countries are now rushing to complete the airlift before the August 31st deadline for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan under an agreement struck with the Taliban last year to end the US’s longest war.
US president Joe Biden said US troops in Afghanistan faced mounting danger as they pushed to complete evacuations by the August 31st deadline, with aid agencies warning of a looming humanitarian crisis for the population left behind.
Mr Biden said US troops were on pace to meet the deadline.
“The sooner we can finish, the better,” Mr Biden said on Tuesday. “Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.”
The Taliban, an Islamist militant group, have offered reassurances that there will not be reprisal killings after they swept in recent weeks to take control of Afghanistan in an ignominious end for the US and its allies to a 20-year war.
But the group’s enduring reputation for brutality and executions has spurred tens of thousands of Afghans to desperately seek to leave the country or go into hiding, particularly those who worked with international forces and organisations.
European leaders failed to persuade the US president to keep troops at Kabul airport beyond the August 31st deadline at a meeting of the G7, leaving just days to complete evacuations.
German chancellor Angela Merkel said there was “no new date” for the end of evacuations after a virtual G7 meeting in which London, Paris and Berlin pushed for Washington to continue its military presence in Afghanistan to give more time to extract people who fear for their lives after the Taliban takeover.
Four Russian military planes evacuated Russian and other nationals from Kabul on Wednesday on the orders of president Vladimir Putin, as Moscow held military exercises involving its tank forces in neighbouring Tajikistan.
The flights mark a shift in Russia’s stance on Afghanistan. Its ambassador to Kabul had previously praised the Taliban’s conduct and said the group, still officially designated a terrorist organisation in Russia, had made Kabul safer in 24 hours than it had been under the previous authorities.
But the Kremlin said on Wednesday that the situation was very tense and, citing the presence of Islamic State in Afghanistan as well as the Taliban, said that the terrorist threat was “very high”. The Russian defence ministry said it was evacuating more than 500 people from Afghanistan, including Russians and citizens of Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.
Risk of persecution
The Taliban declared that Afghans would not longer be allowed to reach the airport on Tuesday, saying that this was necessary to prevent a repeat of fatal crushes but also accusing the US of removing skilled people whose expertise was needed in the country.
“The road that ends at Kabul airport has been blocked. Foreigners can go through it but Afghans are not allowed to take the road,” said Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid.
While the focus is now on those people trying to flee, the risk of starvation, disease and persecution is rising for the rest of the population after the chaotic exodus from Kabul airport ends, aid agencies say.
“There’s a perfect storm coming because of several years of drought, conflict, economic deterioration, compounded by Covid,” David Beasley, the executive director of the UN World Food Programme, told Reuters in Doha, calling for the international community to donate $200 million (€170 million) in food aid.
“The number of people marching towards starvation has spiked to now 14 million.”
Afghanistan’s population is estimated at 36 million though no census has been completed over more than 40 years of warfare and refugee movements.
The EU said this week it was planning a quadrupling in aid and was seeking co-ordination with the UN on delivery as well as safety guarantees on the ground.
Foreign donors pledged a projected $12 billion (€10.2 billion) in civilian aid to Afghanistan over four years at a conference last November, but many made it conditional on protecting human rights and progress on peace talks.
The UN human rights chief said she had received credible reports of serious violations by the Taliban, including “summary executions” of civilians and Afghan security forces who had surrendered. The Taliban have said they will investigate any reports of atrocities.
A Nato country diplomat in Kabul, who declined to be identified, said several international aid groups are desperate to get their Afghan staff to neighbouring nations.
Tens of thousands of Afghans fearing persecution have thronged Kabul’s airport since the Taliban takeover, the lucky ones securing seats on flights.
The Nato country diplomat said Afghanistan’s neighbours should open their land borders to allow more people to leave.
Two US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was growing concern about the risk of suicide bombings by Islamic State at Kabul airport.
Meanwhile, two members of the US House of Representatives travelled to Afghanistan on Tuesday, prompting a warning from House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said such trips could divert resources from the evacuation of Americans and at-risk Afghans.
Representatives Seth Moulton, a Democrat, and Peter Meijer, a Republican, both of whom served in the Iraq War before running for Congress, said in a statement they went to Kabul to gather information as part of Congress’s oversight role. – Reuters